INTERVIEW: Tom Coghlin QC, an Assurety barrister trainer

Tom Coghlin QC has been a barrister for 20 years and an Assurety trainer for over five years. Here he explains what to expect from one of Assurety’s witness familiarisation courses and why Assurety’s unique approach makes such a dramatic difference.

If you have never been cross-examined by a barrister before, it can be a real shock. As Tom Coghlin explains: “In some ways you might think it is like a normal conversation, because you are being asked questions and answering them, but it is very different. The process is really challenging and it exposes you in a way that you don’t necessarily expect.”

That’s why Assurety has placed cross-examination right at the heart of all the witness familiarisation courses it offers. Not only that, it has developed a unique approach that closely reflects the actual experience of being cross-examined in court. 

Because the law forbids trainers to discuss the details of an actual case, traditional witness training methods typically use case studies and role play to simulate the cross-examination experience. But Assurety uses a method that reflects the reality of the unfamiliar situation in a far more useful and authentic way. 

Instead of providing the participant with a made up scenario and asking them to pretend, Assurety trainers cross-examine course participants on things that are real for them. 

Tom says: “We are enabling participants to understand what the process actually feels like so that they can see how they perform under that kind of pressure. Role play training can feel sterile because ultimately the participant knows they have been given a script to read. But if you are asked to defend something you’ve actually done, it creates a particular tension which better replicates the feeling of being put on the spot when giving evidence in a real court situation.”

Tom himself is certainly not pretending. Indeed when he cross-examines a participant on one of Assurety’s witness familiarisation courses, he approaches the process in exactly the same way as if he were cross-examining a real witness in court. 

He says: “I prepare for a course with the same rigour as I prepare for a real trial. I will have prepared my questions in advance and might have spent quite a lot of time researching particular topics so that I would expect to know that topic just as well as the participant. I might look the participant up on LinkedIn or on Twitter to see if they have got an internet footprint and read their tweets. In fact often I am left with all sorts of unused cross examination material because I have over-prepared. I am not there to ask powder puff questions. It has got to be real.”

Being put under pressure this way in such an unfamiliar setting this way can reveal all kind of unconscious traits that might hinder someone’s ability to give evidence. Participants can become monosyllabic, or defensive, or emotional, or display behaviours that impair their ability to give evidence clearly and well. 

While the cross-examination by the barrister trainer is taking place, a communications trainer will be watching carefully for any sign of negative behaviour and taking notes.

Tom says: “Sometimes people start tapping their finger on the table in frustration or smirking or giving answers in an evasive or unreliable way. You need to be ready to answer difficult questions without taking it personally, and without letting yourself get distressed by the process.”

Fortunately the great thing about finding out these traits during the Assurety course, rather than in the witness box, is that witnesses at least have an opportunity to think about how they are coming across. 

As Tom says: “Our courses give you a chance to practise so that you come across at your best when you give evidence. We help witnesses to answer questions in a helpful manner for a court or tribunal.”

Tom points out that being able to give evidence effectively is not just helpful on a personal level, it can significantly help the justice process too. He says: “Cases very often turn on witness evidence, and how well people do under cross examination. A witness who performs badly can unquestionably lose the case for that party. Entirely honest people can underperform simply because they are unfamiliar with the process.  And the stakes can be very high - you can have a case worth many millions which turns on how well witnesses do.”

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